Winemaker to Watch: Samuel Louis Smith
When Ryan Woodhouse, our Domestic Buyer, stops a tasting and tells you, “Now this is a winemaker to keep an eye on,” you listen. In this case, he was referring to Samuel Louis Smith, a young winemaker out of the Central Coast. Smith, who is currently the winemaker at Morgan, also has his own eponymous, private label that he started in 2014 as a side project. Currently, he makes three wines, a Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay, from vineyards in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Rita Hills (respectively). Although very small production (the 2017 Chardonnay was only three and a half barrels), each of them are outstanding. And if they are any hint at what’s ahead, then Ryan is right - we’re all in for a treat!
My interest piqued, I managed to catch up with Sam this week to ask him a few questions:
MG: When did you decide to become a winemaker?
SLS: Through high school and university, I studied French and Spanish concurrently, discovering early on that I had a knack for languages, and an insatiable lust for travel. I studied Economics as well, and foresaw a career in international business, utilizing all of the above. That all changed during a semester in Bordeaux, which happened to be during the epic 2009 vintage. Visiting Lynch-Bages, living with a French family where food and wine were inseparable, and drinking some pretty legendary wines, specifically a bottle of ’89 Margaux, I saw the light. Still to this day, the art and beauty in haute cuisine and fine wine, and their perfect marriage, is the pinnacle. It’s truly the pinnacle.
MG: You worked in Australia, Oregon, and Northern Rhone. What brought you back to the Central Coast?
SLS: After working in Australia and Oregon, I returned to Santa Barbara because I believed in the wines. It was also close to friends and family, and there was a promising job at Margerum. After almost three years at Margerum, I got an opportunity to work in the Northern Rhône for François Villard- a dream job! This was 2015. After harvest and some travel in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Morocco, I was totally broke. Upon my return to California, there was a winemaker job opening at Morgan in the Santa Lucia Highlands. To be honest, I never saw myself in Monterey, but I knew our visions aligned- organic viticulture and cool-climate wines that are complex and quite indicative of their place.
MG: Are there any memorable moments in your early experience that shaped either your preferred wine style?
SLS: The tour and tasting at Lynch-Bages, and countless hours-long sunday meals with my Bordelais host family (most notably that which included ’89 Maragaux and roast duck on a cold November afternoon at their countryside farmhouse), set the pace. This is where I learned to drink wine. There, and around the lunch table at Margerum. I learned to make pinot noir in the Willamette Valley with Tony Rynders, who makes fairly rich pinot noir, and refined my syrah techniques with François Villard, who makes some of the most complex, aromatic, and lively syrah. My pinots tend to be a bit lighter than Tony's, but I think my syrahs embody a similar profile to François'. Minimalism in the cellar with an emphasis on aroma and finesse.
MG: You make three wines from three regions: Santa Rita Hills, Monterey and Santa Cruz. Can you tell me why you selected each of these regions?
SLS: Initially it was two wines, both from the Sta. Rita Hills. At the time, I lived and made wine in Santa Barbara. Moving to Monterey to make the wines at Morgan made me rethink that focus, inspiring me to explore some other compelling, under-the-radar terroirs where my varietals shine.
MG: You say “my varietals” - did you always know you wanted to make Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay?
SLS: Initially I also really wanted to make nebbiolo. For me, Piedmont is one of the most stunning viticulture regions in the world, and Barolo is up there with Cote-Rotie and Volnay for wine preferences. Nebbiolo also does well in cool climates and calcareous soils, like pinot noir. However, in its classic style it takes years and years to open, whereas pinot noir and cool-climate syrah ("pinot noir of syrah"), are on a much more approachable timeline, for drinkability and therefore economics. In the foreseeable near future, I can see adding a Northern Rhone white varietal as an analog to syrah, but that's about it. I'm a perfectionist and a traditionalist. The historic domaines of Europe have been confined to a narrow set of varietals for a given appellation, almost to a fault. But there's a lot to be said about doing just a few things really well. Psychologically, that's where I'm comfortable, so I will build a palace with the support of just a few really strong pillars.
MG: How do you find your fruit? What are you looking for in a vineyard?
SLS: My criteria is pretty simple: farming practices (ideally organic), proximity to the coast (closer the better), and elevation. The soil for each varietal must also work, and I find myself gravitating toward growers whose visions align with my own, typically favoring smaller scale production with a focus more on quality than on quantity. Low yields are not necessarily synonymous with high quality, but a balanced canopy that focuses more on ripening fruit rather than vegetative growth generally achieves good stem maturity, which is imperative for successful whole-bunch fermentations.
MG: Do you have a particular style of wine that you prefer to make? The phrase “unmanipulated elegance” keeps popping up in association with your wines. Can you explain?
SLS: If the criteria above are followed, the wine requires little to no manipulation. Often I go out to my vineyards and tell myself, “Wow, this is beautiful. This is perfect. What can I do (or not do) to preserve this experience?” One is inherently moved to only support the fruit’s purity in this situation. That is unmanipulated elegance.
MG: What do you like most about your wines?
SLS: I consider my wines to be a neoclassical French style. Retaining acidity and balance is very important, but the purity and finesse must be structured. I like how my wines are fairly light on their feet, but do not lack length and depth. These are not “natural wines,” but they are made very naturally.
We will be tasting Sam’s wines this Saturday in all our stores, during our Domestic Wine tasting. Come down and check them out for yourself!